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The Maintenance of Elections

maintenance of voting, upkeep

With the 2020 Presidential election cycle ramping up, we were curious about the role of maintenance in national elections. We were fascinated to learn about the world of voting machine maintenance in Issie Lapowsky’s March 2019 Wired article titled States Need Way More Money to Fix Crumbling Voting Machines.

News headlines are crowded with articles focused on what can go wrong on November 3rd, 2020. International interference, lost votes, low voter turnout – the list of potential risks is long. What we haven’t seen reported widely on, however, is the perilous condition of the voting machines themselves and the affects their crumbling condition could have on our national election.

Looking Toward 2020

In Lapowsky’s piece, she paints a dire picture for the future of our Presidential election process due to degraded polling machines. She shares a report published by New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice finds that found 31 US states said they need to upgrade their voting machines before 2020—but only about a third of them have enough money to do so.

Lapowsky writes, 

“That’s a considerable threat to election security given that 40 states are using machines that are at least a decade old, and 45 states are using equipment that’s not even manufactured anymore. This creates security vulnerabilities that can’t be patched and leads to machines breaking down when the pressure’s on. 

“We are driving the same car in 2019 that we were driving in 2004, and the maintenance costs are mounting up,” one South Carolina election official told the Brennan Center’s researchers, noting that he feels “lucky” to be able to find spare parts.

Maintenance on voting machines varies by machine, and ranges from the physical upkeep of crumbling machines to updating necessary software within the device’s security systems. This reactive and preventative maintenance takes considerable time, effort and of course, money.

So how much exactly would improving, maintaining and replacing this outdated voting technology and machinery cost? The Wired piece explains:

“Actually making these improvements will require money, and lots of it. During a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing last week, Alex Halderman, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan, estimated that to give states even half the money they need to replace their DRE machines, Congress would need to set aside $900 million more. To ensure these machines are fully functional by 2020, Norden says, states need to get that money sometime this year.”

The cost of NOT maintaining these machines, on the other hand, is incomprehensible. 

The faultier these machines are, the more voters are potentially disenfranchised by prohibitively long lines on election day.”

Not only that, 

“At a time when foreign governments are looking to undermine Americans’ faith in democratic institutions, the risks associated with these technological shortcomings are impossible to ignore.”

What can we do?

With the clock ticking on our next Presidential election, it’s important we as a community speak up for actionable steps we can take. What preventative maintenance and reliability practices can we implement in the future to help curb these issues in the first place? How can we innovate and manufacture new voting technologies that are more durable against the test of time? 

If anyone can be the heroes of this election cycle, it may just be the maintenance community.